By Jenna Johnson and Michelle Boorstein
Washington Post Staff Writers
Tuesday, January 25, 2011; 9:28 PM
The profanities coming from the mouth of the professor in a recent class on freedom of speech were not, by themselves, all that shocking. But this was Catholic University, a bastion of traditional values. And the professor was its new president, John H. Garvey.
A few students glanced at each other awkwardly as Garvey used the words as part of his lecture on controversial speech. Then Garvey showed a YouTube video of actor Mel Gibson using foul language in a taped conversation with an ex-girlfriend. As his voice grew louder, a student popped out of her chair and turned down the volume.
"You can't pussyfoot around it," Garvey said later. "Forget about taboos."
The scene was a small sign of the change happening at the nation's flagship Catholic university as Garvey, 62, who was formally inaugurated Tuesday, becomes the first lay person to hold the office since 1982. Garvey is a former dean at Boston College Law School and has set a more informal tone on campus while shifting attention toward more open debate and a well-rounded experience for undergraduates.
"The challenge for Catholic universities is finding a place for bibles and papal decrees between our telescopes and microscopes," Garvey said during his inaugural address Tuesday. (He started in July; the inauguration was ceremonial.) "I think the fault for this flat, crabbed, cartoonish vision of Catholic higher education lies not with the critics of religion, but with us. We have been so intent on defending ourselves against charges of fundamentalism and censorship that we have failed to create, let alone promote, a serious Catholic intellectual culture."
Garvey's predecessor, Bishop David M. O'Connell, lived alone in the president's residence and donated his $367,000 annual salary to his Vincentian order. Tall and telegenic, O'Connell was a prominent conservative figure and a frequent guest at the George W. Bush White House.
At Catholic, he forbade an official club for gay students and blocked campus speakers who voiced messages at odds with Catholic teachings. This prevented actor Stanley Tucci from appearing at a film festival in 2004.
Garvey, by contrast, came under fire from Catholic traditionalists in 2007 when he allowed a Democratic congressman who had supported abortion rights to speak at the law school's commencement. He also contributed money to the campaigns of Sen. John F. Kerry (D-Mass.), a fellow Catholic who clashed with some church leaders during his run for president in 2004.
"In the 12 years he was at Catholic, [O'Connell] reestablished Catholic identity in ways only a priest can do," said Michael Sean Winters, a former seminarian who writes books and blogs about the Catholic Church and politics. These included celebrating Mass when the earthquake hit in Haiti and generally "walking around in a collar as a walking advertisement for vocations. For Catholics, leading liturgy is very, very important."
Garvey, who was Catholic-educated, has a wife and five children. He's considered more of a political centrist. Garvey has spoken of elevating the scholarly currency of Catholic just as his predecessor strengthened its spiritual identity.
Thomas Melady, a former U.S. ambassador to the Vatican who has two graduate degrees from Catholic and attended the inauguration, said the reaction to Garvey has been "very positive."
The differences between the men may be mostly of style, he said. Garvey "may express things a bit differently, but I don't expect to see any tremendous differences," Melady said.
Garvey is a graduate of the University of Notre Dame and Harvard Law School, and he taught at the law schools of the universities of Kentucky and Michigan, Notre Dame and Boston College. He has written books about the U.S. Constitution, Catholicism and sexuality.
Garvey's academic experience was tilted toward graduate schools, but with Catholic's nearly 7,000 students split almost equally between undergraduates and graduate students, he has made a point of spending time with younger students. He lived in a dormitory for several months and ate most of his meals in the cafeteria.
To students accustomed to O'Connell's style, the change was striking.
"We came into the university knowing that O'Connell was a big guy in the Catholic world. He was intimidating," said Elaine Limanek, 21, a junior media studies and communications major from Vermont. She says the new president is more approachable.
Garvey's time with students convinced him that the campus layout wasn't easy for undergraduates to navigate. To get to the gym on the edge of campus, students have to walk about half a mile and cross a major street. The modest-size student center is often filled with students who have no other place to gather. And the heart of campus features a massive parking lot instead of a grassy quad.
"There are no basketball hoops. No place for volleyball. There are not enough places to hang out," Garvey said. "If you are a senior, there's no place to get a beer with your friends."
The design issues date to Catholic's founding as a graduate school in the late 19th century. In 1904, undergraduate programs were added - yet, all these years later, the campus still has a grad-school feel, Garvey said.
"You would think after running undergraduate education for 100 years, we would have figured it out," he said. "They live here, so they are all about the school, 24 hours a day. The nature of undergraduate student life is important."
At the end of the summer, Garvey turned some parking spots into a small basketball court. Plans are underway to add a volleyball pit near one of the residence halls.
And during strategic meetings to draft a 10-year campus plan, Garvey has stressed the need to make Catholic feel like a college campus - perhaps adding a grand entrance to campus, plazas and quads with fountains, or pushing for development near campus so students have more shopping, eating and drinking options.
Students are planning a less-formal inaugural ball for Friday night that will feature an ice sculpture, a string quartet and, later, a DJ spinning oldies and Top 40. The Garveys plan to attend and dance to "Can't Take My Eyes Off of You" by Frankie Valli.
"I think everyone can already say they have a personal relationship with him," said John McCarthy, a sophomore politics major who is in Garvey's class and helped plan the ball. "He's the students' president."
Staff writer Daniel de Vise contributed to this report.